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  • Webster's banned for too much sex

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    Why ban a word when you can ban the whole dictionary? That's the attitude of one southern California school district, which pulled Merriam-Webster's "Collegiate Dictionary" from school shelves after a parent complained that its definition of "oral sex" was too explicit.

    In his own Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defined a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge."

    Johnson's definition of lexicographer:

    But when the Menifee Union School District learned that Merriam-Webster defined oral sex as "oral stimulation of the genitals: cunnilingus, fellatio," it decided that dictionaries are harmful to fourth and fifth graders and banned the books pending further investigation.

    According to school spokesperson Betti Cadmus, who shares her patronym with the mythical Phoenician credited with bringing writing to the Greeks, the dictionary has been pulled from all Menifee schools (so if you want to know more about Cadmus, or what patronym means, try the public library, because the school library won't be allowed to tell you).

    Cadmus, who suspects that Webster's may have a lot worse things in it than oral sex, told the local newspaper, "It's hard to sit and read the dictionary, but we'll be looking to find other things of a graphic nature."

    Most people don't find reading a dictionary cover to cover all that stimulating, and some parents aren't supporting the school's word witch-hunt. After all, dictionaries are the place where children often go to find out what dirty words mean, because even parents who teach their children the anatomically-correct terms for their private parts balk at explaining taboo terms like fuck and cunt (Webster's exemplary definitions of these words, which are clearly labeled as negative, are written in simple language that even a fifth-grader can understand), plus parents may not have taken enough Latin in school to accurately explain the derivations of words like cunnilingus or fellatio (also in Webster's) to their offspring. And Riverside County continues to use Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for its annual spelling bee, which will put Menifee students at a competitive disadvantage (Menifee's district spelling bee is set for Thursday, Jan. 28).

    But others agree that schools must protect the eyes and ears of the young from the r-rated parts of the language. Supporters of the dictionary ban should draw courage from the fact that Noah Webster, creator of the first Webster's Dictionary and the author of Webster's "blue back" speller, the most popular spelling book of its day, was himself so prudish that in 1833 he rewrote the King James Bible taking out the dirty bits.

    Webster explained that "many words and phrases are so offensive, especially to females, as to create a reluctance in young persons to attend Bible classes and schools, in which they are required to read passages which cannot be repeated without a blush; and containing words which, on other occasions, a child could not utter without rebuke."

    Webster expurgated such King James classics as stink, womb, belly, whore, stones, and piss, all of them in the dictionary banned by the Menifee schools, and he bowdlerized phrases suggestive of sexual activity -- for the great American lexicographer, knowledge in the biblical sense was the ultimate dirty word, though it's in the now-banned collegiate dictionary that bears his name. Webster's original dictionary was also chaste, and it's unlikely that he would approve the decision of the lexicographers who came after him to include formerly-prohibited words that people might actually want to look up.

    Carlsbad, NM, bans dictionary in 1982

    Menifee isn't the first community to ban a dictionary, and it probably won't be the last. In 1982, Carlsbad, New Mexico, banned Merriam-Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary because it defined certain four-letter words. Contrary to rumors circulating on the internet, Wasilla, Alaska, Mayor Sarah Palin did not ban the dictionary, or any other book. The above clip appeared on p. 1 of the Wilmington, North Carolina, Morning Star on Sept. 30, 1982.

    Unfortunately, banning dictionaries -- making Webster's liber non gratus, to use the Latin word for this dirty practice -- won't put bad words out of business. Adults will continue to use terms like oral sex, and children will still need to find out they mean. Only now they'll be forced to acquire that knowledge on the street, with all that that entails, instead of in the relative safety of a dusty old reference book at the back of the classroom or in the school library.

    Brown Nose, from McDavid's glossary of Citadel slang:

    Above: the entry for the verb brown nose, collected by Raven McDavid in his glossary of Citadel Slang (American Speech, 1939), followed below by the treatment of the word in Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961), apparently the first major dictionary to include it. Webster's Third added an etymology that is so direct yet so delicate that it was reprinted in later Merriam-Webster desk dictionaries like the one just banned in California, and is quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word as well.

    Definition from Webster's Third: brownnose, verb, from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one's nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought. Slang. Apple-polish, toady

    UPDATE: Several days after removing Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary from elementary school classrooms, the Menifee schools returned the books. Parental discretion is advised, however: before being allowed to use the dictionary, children will have to get signed permission slips from home. What's not clear is whether the school will warn parents and guardians that by signing the slips, they are giving their children permission to explore all the of dangers that await them in the dictionary of the English language.


s-mufwene@uchicago.edu Jan 25, 2010 11:55 pm
Somebody must be thinking that removing the dictionary from the school's library will abate students' curiosity or perhaps that dictionaries play as much a role in spreading explicit or vulgar terms as the actual interactions in which these are perceived and the contexts in which their meanings can often be inferred accurately. Pretty soon these "language officers" will have to levy a fine on whoever uses a vulgar or sexually explicit term, which is probably a more efficient way than removing the dictionary from the school's library. Hey, why stop at sex terms and not purge the language of everything offensive? Then one generation of speakers will be short of terms for what they really want to say. We know very well the cycle will start all over again, as with euphemisms. Speakers will invent new ones. If the guys really want to protect their children, they should start by sanitizing the social practices that these terms name. Salikoko Mufwene
cktirumalai@yahoo.com Jan 30, 2010 9:55 am
Shakespeare was once "expurgated" by the Reverend Bowdler, with all the naughty bits taken out, as the English might say colloquially. Hence the term "bowdlerize".

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